We Are Not Strangers–A powerful story of World War II

Review by C.J. Bunce

According to the U.S. Census, 265,000 Asian Americans are military veterans today.  Eight hundred died during military service during World War II.

One of the greatest travesties in American history was the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the vast majority citizens born and raised here.  This fall writer-artist Josh Tuininga has delivered a unique look at the internment of Japanese Americans from the perspective of one of the communities in Seattle that supported these people during their years living in prison conditions.  The book is a graphic novel called We Are Not Strangers.  Available now in hardcover here at Amazon from Abrams ComicArts, it is one of the best graphic novels you’ll ever read–a great story of humanity in the face of adversity.

Readers of We Are Not Strangers will learn about Josh Tuininga and his relationship with his uncle Marco, who recounted stories of his grandfather, a Sephardic Jewish man, who helped Japanese American families from Seattle during World War II.  In a foreword Tuininga discusses visiting local markets with his own grandfather, called Papoo, and how his own Papoo was familiar to so many Asian-American business owners as they went about their errands.  The author’s experiences and stories from his uncle propelled him to research, write, and illustrate Marco’s grandfather’s story in graphic novel form.  It is a story of two immigrant communities–the Sephardic Jewish community and those of Japanese descendant–who lived and worked together in a fairly diverse Seattle in the years leading up to the second World War.

It may seem like a similar tale–Schindler’s ListWe Are Not Strangers shows the impact of news of the Nazis exterminating Jewish citizens on the American Jewish community and tells a story that hasn’t yet been told.  Once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Roosevelt declared war, attention quickly shifted to Japanese Americans as potential collaborators.  All Japanese Americans were ordered to leave their homes and businesses behind–many never to be attained again.  But not everyone turned their backs on the Japanese Americans.  (You may recall actor George Takei was a child in an American internment camp and has discussed his own story via several media).

Marco and Sam Akiyama are great friends who meet to fish in the area near Pike’s Fish Market where Sam has his own market.  They talk of the impending future and uncertainty as the war gets closer to home.  But when it becomes clear Sam’s family will be taken away, Marco steps in with an idea and a plan–to preserve Sam’s home and business until he is able to return.

Tuininga illustrates a picture of what it meant to be among the Sephardic sect of Judaism, how it differentiated from Ashkenazic Judaism, and how his culture blended into Seattle of the 1940s along with the Japanese descendants.  The author includes an index of maps and historical locations readers can still visit that reflect the parts of town identified with different migrant populations.

Fans of science fiction will know well the recent Amazon Studios series The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s story of an alternate World War II.  The series features a scene where an American soldier has the opportunity to save a long-time friend who is Jewish as he is being shipped off to his death.  The soldier has the chance to save his friend, but instead turns his head and walks away.  It’s a gut-punch to any viewer–and it defines the character as the most vile of villains in the story.  During the actual World War II, Americans were coaxed to spy on other Americans at the beckoning of the mantra “loose lips sink ships,” and a Jewish American man rendering assistance to a Japanese American was taking significant personal risk to himself and his family–even in the U.S.

Tuininga’s storytelling style is succinct.  His artwork is simple, but vivid.  We Are Not Strangers is a powerful look into the past that rivals Art Spiegelman’s World War II graphic novel Maus.  It’s a story of humanity taking charge in the face of inhumanity.  One of this year’s best graphic novels, it’s available now in a full-color hardcover here at Amazon.

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